Tag Archive | "Housing Court"

Families Suffer Under City-Led Housing Subsidy

Collar pictured with three of her seven children in their Morris Heights apartment.

Laura Collar fidgeted in place outside the fourth-floor courtroom in the Bronx Housing court on a Friday morning in September. The 34-year-old tenant waited to inform her landlord’s lawyer that she’d been granted another 12 days extension before they evict her from the Morris Heights apartment in the West Bronx where she lives with her five children.

A row of piercings protruded from Collars furrowed brow as she thought about what to do next. She had just 12 days to figure out why the New York City Human Resources Administration (HRA) had stopped paying her rent. Twelve days to figure out where she and her children would go if she could not convince the city agency to start paying again.

“HRA approved my case,” Collar said, digging through the mound of paperwork and documents in her tattooed arms that she has accumulated throughout her case. “How am I supposed to make sure they are paying?”

Her apartment is one of those currently subsidized by a city program called the Family Eviction Prevention Supplement (CITYFEPS). The program was created in 2014 to help families in homeless shelters move into permanent housing or low-income families facing eviction avoid becoming homeless. 

HRA agrees to pay a substantial portion of the family’s monthly rent — $1,560 in Collar’s case —  as long as the family continues to qualify for the program. However, families frequently struggle to find appropriate housing even with this supplement. CITYFEPS is currently being rolled over into the new Family Housing and Eviction Prevention Supplement (CityFHEPS) program, which combines a number of rental subsidy programs into a single program.

The program, designed to keep families off the street, is now the cause of some evictions. When Collar’s landlord filed paperwork to evict her in July, HRA was over $6,000 behind on its share of Collar’s rent. Court records also show that the agency failed to make any payments in August and September. 

This wouldn’t be the first time that Collar was evicted from the four-bedroom, three-bath, apartment because of an HRA mix-up. In October last year, she lost the apartment for a month when HRA fell over $16,000 behind on her rent, according to court documents. HRA had been sending checks to the wrong management company, and by the time the agency resolved the issue, Collar’s landlord had moved forward with the eviction. 

Having been told that the case should be resolved in a week, Collar and her children moved into her mother’s Staten Island house, where nearly 20 family members shared five bedrooms. It wasn’t until November of that year that the family moved back into their apartment. 

“It was traumatic,” Collar said. “We were cramped up in the house and [my children] missed school.” 

But, if it’s HRA who failed to pay, why evict Collar? Because landlords have no other option to recuperate their rent, said an attorney who asked that his name not be used to avoid unfavorable treatment from HRA in future cases.

“This court has no jurisdiction on city payments,” explained the attorney, who has 23 years of experience in housing court. Unlike the federal housing voucher system called Section 8, the city does not appear as a third-party on the lease under programs like CITYFEPS, meaning that landlords have no legal recourse against the city.

A tenant can theoretically do everything right, but if HRA makes a mistake or is late to process paperwork, the landlord’s only option is to file for eviction and let the tenant deal with HRA.

The burden of managing her own case makes it impossible for Collar to lead a normal life. She keeps a binder full of documents related to the various programs she relies on, and spends multiple days a week in the HRA office. 

“I could make a house in there,”Collar said, referring to Bronx Housing Court. “I go every day. I’m not used to this, I never had to depend of welfare before (moving to New York City). It’s just crazy.” 

Twelve days after her extension Collar was due back in court. However, she still had no answers from the city.

“I don’t know what is going to happen to me,” Collar said in a phone interview. “ I don’t have proof that (HRA) is going to pay…. They’re trying to put two and two together, but they’re at a standstill.”

Meanwhile, Collar’s case moves on. Her last-ditch attempt to get answers in person from HRA meant she missed her day in court. Normally, Collar would have defaulted and she would have lost her motion. The stay of eviction proceedings would have been lifted and the marshall would have proceeded with the eviction.

However, it was the first day of Rosh Hashana and Collar got lucky. Because of the holiday, the court  decided to forgive no-shows and simply pushed her case back another 15 days. 

Fifteen days for Collar to find answers. Fifteen days for her to make plans if not.

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Housing, Housing injustice FHEPSComments (0)

Leveling the Legal Playing Field: Tenants Fight for Homes with the Help of Right to Counsel

Elizabeth Thompson, 72, has been in and out of court for around 31 years. She finally got an exemption for a lawyer after Right to Counsel.
Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Elizabeth Thompson, a 72-year-old retired health care clerk, had been in and out of housing court since 1988. Usually, it was because her landlord claimed she was behind in the rent. 

It was a battle that Thompson largely fought on her own. Until recently.

This past March, Thompson’s landlord took her to court again because she owed $817 in rent, according to court documents. Thompson is on a fixed income from social security and it doesn’t always arrive at the same time, she said. At first, she represented herself.

But she faced little success in court and decided she needed a lawyer.

“They say I’m not qualified for a lawyer,” she said.

Thompson received too much money in retirement from social security to qualify for a free lawyer in housing court, but she couldn’t afford one on her own.

New York City passed its historic Universal Access to Legal Representation law, also known as Right to Counsel, in 2017. It ensures free legal services to low-income Bronx tenants living in four ZIP codes, 10457, 10462, 10467 and 10468. In just two years, evictions in the Bronx decreased by 23%, according to the New York City Office of Civil Justice Annual Report. In a city where two-thirds of residents rent, the Bronx claimed the highest decrease in evictions since Right to Counsel was implemented.

Currently, Right to Counsel is effective in these areas of the Bronx.
Hibah Ansari, The Bronx Ink

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition advocated for the law. They’re now campaigning to expand it so that more tenants, like Thompson, can be eligible. They partner with other organizations like Legal Services NYC.

Right to Counsel gives power back to tenants, especially as they face landlords represented by powerful law firms, according to Heejung Kook, the housing unit deputy director for Legal Services NYC.

“No one really gives advice to the tenants,” Kook said. “Once the attorney gets involved through the tenant’s side, the tenant knows what their defenses are. So we can try to negotiate for better terms, or often just to fight hard to keep their apartment.”

Thompson asked the Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Association for help, and they directed her to the Legal Aid Society. Although she didn’t qualify because her income was too high, she spoke with a supervisor and was approved anyway.

Everything changed after she found representation, Thompson said.

“The court lawyer went against our landlord’s lawyer and let him know that he had to do,” she said.

Nadia Hasan, the supervising attorney at the Legal Aid Society NYC, took up her case.

“A lot of it has to do with just having someone on your side, someone listening and explaining things to you,” Hasan said about Right to Counsel. She added that tenants also get better terms with an attorney present.

Both parties have to comply with the agreement Hasan fought for — Thompson will follow a payment plan while the landlord addresses the repairs.

Brian Stark, a lawyer for her landlord, according to court documents, could not be reached for comment.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition is a grassroots social justice organization. Part of their mission is to advocate for tenants’ rights in the Bronx.

The Bronx has had the most evictions out of any borough for the last six years, according to the Office of Civil Justice report. Before the law was passed, city marshals carried out 7,438 evictions in the Bronx, compared to 5,984 eviction in Brooklyn and 2,843 in Manhattan.

To qualify for free legal services, a family of two would have to make an income of less than $32,480, according to the New York City Housing Court. Thompson earns about $40,000 per a year.

The Right to Counsel NYC Coalition wants to increase the income eligibility so more tenants like Thompson can be covered. For a family of two, the income limit would be $67,640.

Thompson’s building is owned by Claflin Apartments LLC, which is registered to Moshe Piller, according to state business records. 

The Bronx Ink previously reported on the conditions of Piller’s buildings in Brooklyn and the Bronx in 2010. At the time, tenants complained of faulty wiring, a collapsed ceiling and clogged plumbing.

Thompson, who’s lived in the same Fordham apartment for 35 years, had similar complaints about her apartment.

Some days, the boiler in the building worked. Other days it didn’t. The electricity would occasionally go out — one time for eleven hours. Mice came through a hole under her kitchen sink. 

Zachary Cassel, The Bronx Ink

Inell Tolliver, 57, also lives in Thompson’s building. Tolliver said that the other tenants wouldn’t know how their landlord was responding to violations without Thompson, who tried to set up a meeting with building management.

There have been 286 complaints registered against Thompson’s building since 1991, according to the Department of Buildings. There have been nine since January. The most frequent complaint is that the elevator stops working. The building has six floors.

The superintendent could not be reached for comment.

Tolliver cited mold, scraped floors and a locked laundry room in the basement. She also said that the hot water doesn’t always work and it’s been a recurring issue.

When the Bronx Ink tested Thompson’s sink, the water became warm but would not get hot.

Neither Piller or a representative from M. P. Management could be reached for comment.

By 2022, all tenants who are income-eligible in New York City should have access to free legal representation, according to the New York City Housing Court. But even now, as evictions are decreasing, more than half of the tenants at the Bronx Housing Court did not know about their eligibility for a free lawyer before arriving to court, according to a survey conducted by the Right to Counsel NYC Coalition.

For the first time, funding for expansion of legal services for low-income New York City tenants exceeded $100 million in 2018. The city expects to increase funding until all low-income tenants are covered in 2022, according to the Office of Civil Justice. Legal Services NYC also receives funding from the federal and state government as well as charity organizations.

Kook has some doubts about Right to Counsel’s ability to expand to all ZIP codes by 2022. But she added that if the city continues to fund and support Right to Counsel providers in the long term, they can effectively expand their services and decrease evictions across the city.

“Anyone can change the law,” Kook said. “We’re really hoping that the city will continue doing this kind of work.”

Thompson has not been to court since July. Her attorney helped her reach an agreement that will keep her out if she keeps up with rent.

Posted in Housing Injustice Right to Counsel, Special ReportsComments (0)

Finding a Place in New York with a Rental Voucher

When Francheska Lappost, a 24-year-old mother of two, moved from a homeless shelter to her first apartment in Williamsbridge five months ago, it wasn’t an upgrade. There were cockroaches, the stove wouldn’t turn on, the bathroom fan was broken and the sink was clogged, Lappost said.

“It was better living in the shelter than where I live right now,” she said.

Lappost is looking for a new apartment, but finding a place in her price range has proved to be an onerous task.

Lappost receives a monthly rental voucher from the Family Homelesness and Eviction Prevention Supplement (FHEPS), a program run by the New York City’s Human Resources Administration. The agency adjusts the amount of the vouchers according to household sizes. Under this program, Lappost is set to receive $1,557 a month, the maximum for a family of three.

Lappost qualified for the housing voucher because after migrating from the Dominican Republic, she and her family spent 10 months in a homeless shelter in Van Nest, on the east side of the Bronx. That arrangement was provided by PATH, the agency that manages the municipal shelter system.

Lappost is five months pregnant and is now looking for a place to live with her 4-year-old and 7-year-old children. The only option in the FHEPS price range is another one bedroom apartment.

According to the Coalition for the Homeless, a New York-based advocacy group, there are not enough apartments to cover the affordable housing demand. Only 2% of studios and 3% of three-bedroom apartments are in the price range established by CityFHEPS, according to a 2019 report released by the non-profit. In New York City, there are 16,480 vacant studio apartments in the vouchers price range, while there are 17,887 single adults living in the shelter system.  

“We need to be both giving people vouchers to help close the gap between income and rent and we also need to be actually extending the supply of truly affordable apartments if we want to fight homelessness,” said Jacquelyn Simone, a policy analyst for Coalition for the Homeless. 

Coalition for the Homeless wants the city to build 24,000 new units and to preserve the affordability of 6,000 more by subsidizing existing units. Additionally, there is a proposal by District 33 Councilman Stephen Levin that would raise the city voucher price levels to fair market rents and which would widen the supply of apartments for voucher holders, Simone said.   

Even if CityFHEPS beneficiaries find apartments in their price range, that doesn’t guarantee their application will be approved, said Craig Waletzko, community engagement coordinator of the nonprofit Fair Housing Justice Center. Landlords are often upfront about rejecting applications from renters who use vouchers, Waletzko said, despite a state law that prohibits this type of housing discrimination. 

“They’re just so many providers that are convinced that they don’t need to accept renters or people seeking homes using subsidies to pay their rent.” 

Fair Housing Justice Center receives complaints and conducts approximately 100  investigations a year to determine whether landlords discriminate against voucher holders. 

Representatives of the non-profit go undercover, looking for apartments, trying to isolate the factor that would trigger an application denial. They send two separate testers with similar incomes, jobs and credit scores. The only difference between them is the voucher.

Landlords and brokers often fail the test, Waletzko said, treating those with vouchers differently than applicants not enrolled in rental assistance programs. 

Lappost encountered a similar bias on her first apartment hunt. “It took me three months to find my apartment. Not everyone takes programs,” she said.

The tight housing market in New York City means that rents tend to be high, which limit the options available for CityFHEPS voucher holders.

“The quality of housing that is available to folks when they are using the programs is just terrible,” said Waletzko. 

Lappost’s search for an apartment is especially urgent this time around. Her landlord is suing her for not paying rent. She’s not sure why the rent hasn’t been paid; she thought her FHEPS voucher meant it would be paid automatically. Lappost is convinced that her landlord doesn’t have the grounds to evict her. 

Robert Farina, the lawyer who represents Lappost’s landlord, said that although she gets a benefit from the Department of Social Services, she is still responsible for paying her rent. The only exception to this rule is Section 8, a different program in which the city pays part of the rent directly. Lappost’s rent was not paid in full for the months from May to October, Farina said. 

Lappost got another citation to appear in court Oct. 31. She has to show proof of all of the FHEPS invoices . Lappost said she had them – she carried them in her purse the last time she was in court. 

Lappost is running out of options, she had to quit her babysitting job because of her pregnancy. And she’s concerned about the additional bills from housing court. “He also wants me to pay $1000 for his lawyer,” she said.

Posted in - Housing Court Project Policy, Bronx Neighborhoods, Special ReportsComments (1)

A-Z of Common Housing Court Terms

BronxInk reporters came across a lot of housing jargon and legal-speak over the course of our reporting on the New York City housing system. We’ve put some of the most common terms in the glossary below.

Abatement: if a landlord fails to provide repairs to an apartment and a tenant then withholds rent resulting in a nonpayment case, a judge can order the tenant to pay a lower amount of back rent.

Adjournment: the temporary postponement of a hearing.

Affidavit: a sworn statement, made either in writing or spoken and notarized. 

Alternative Enforcement Program: once a year, HPD selects severely distressed, multiple-unit dwellings for participation in this program, which requires landlords fix problems that HPD deems serious within a certain time period, or else face fines. Also known as the “Babysitting Program.”

Arrears: unpaid back rent.

Blacklist: an unofficial, illicit list detailing tenants who have been sued in court, which landlords take as an indicator of unreliability. Private companies compile lists from court records and provide them to landlords looking to screen potential future tenants. To be removed from a list, individuals first have to figure out if they’re on one — often only possible by requesting the data held by multiple firms. Getting your name removed is difficult, since the lists are based on public records.

Back rent: rent owed from an earlier date. Also known as rent arrears.

CityFEPS: a previous rental assistance program that started in 2014, but has since been incorporated into the new CityFHEPS program. It previously provided one-time emergency payments on outstanding back rent, and provided a monthly subsidy to tenants depending on how many children a receiving family had.

CityFHEPS: a new program combining the former CityFEPS, LINC and SPES programs, CityFHEPS began on April 1, 2019. It aims to “help individuals and families find and keep housing” according to the city, and should expand the number of people that qualify for the programs while lifting the administrative burden of running three programs simultaneously.

Claim: a demand made in court to help enforce the law, for money or property.

Clerk: a court employee who is responsible for organizing relevant documents and files in court.

Complaint: this is the first document filed to the court by a person or entity claiming legal rights against another, e.g. a landlord alleging a tenant failed to pay rent, or a tenant alleging the property violates the NYC Housing Maintenance Code.

Complainant: the party who files a complaint with the court.

ConEdison: a utility company providing electricity, gas and steam to NYC and Westchester County.

Conference: a negotiation between a tenant, a landlord and an attorney or judge in an attempt to settle a case, rather than bring it to trial.

Contempt of court: disobedience of the order dictated by the court.

Counterclaim: defendants can file a claim against a plaintiff in a case, sometimes used as a legal strategy by defendant attorneys.

Court attorney: an attorney who works closely with a judge for the court, rather than for either party in a case.

Court reporter: court employee responsible for transcribing the proceedings in the courtroom.

CPLR: Civil Practice Law and Rules. This is New York state statute, which dictates a lawsuit’s proceedings.

Default: when one party fails to appear for court proceedings, resulting in a default judgement.

Default judgement: a judgement in favor of the plaintiff is brought in a case after one party fails to submit relevant paperwork or appear in court before a given deadline.

Defense: the party against whom a complaint is filed.

Dismissed with prejudice: Legal actions that are dismissed based on elements that mean the same case cannot be brought without new evidence.

Dismissed without prejudice: legal actions brought forward are dismissed, but not based on the validity of elements presented in a way that would prevent the same case from being brought forward again.

Eviction: when someone is expelled from the property they live in, based on legal arguments.

FEPS: Family Eviction Prevention Supplement. A program run by the city that pays back rent and grants a shelter allowance for families on public assistance with children under the age of 18. Not the same as CityFHEPS.

Group HP Action: A legal action taken by a group rather than an individual, within the context of Housing Part, the courtroom reserved for tenants suing landlords for repairs.

Harassment: when a landlord behaves in a way intended to make a tenant feel uncomfortable enough to move out of the property they are renting.

Heat season: from Oct. 1 to May 31, owners of residential properties are legally required to keep their properties heated to a minimum temperature of 68 F in the daytime and 62 F at night.

Holdover case: when a landlord wants to evict a tenant for reasons other than nonpayment of rent. Lawsuits brought by landlords either fall into the categories of nonpayment or holdover.

Housing Court Answers: a nonprofit designed to help tenants without legal representation navigate their cases in the housing court system. The organization does work in all five boroughs, but its Bronx desk is in the lobby of Bronx Housing Court.

HP: Housing Part, which refers to the section of housing court that deals with nonpayment and holdover cases.

HP Action: Legal proceedings related to, but not always taking place within, housing court. HP actions are brought against a landlord for repairs or harassment.

HPD: Department of Housing Preservation and Development. This is the city agency responsible for developing and maintaining affordable housing across NYC.

HPD Online: An online data portal provided by HPD offering building data, information on building complaints and violations, litigation, property registration data, and information on blocks and lots.

HP Proceeding: actions taken in housing court to settle matters of housing law.

HRA: Human Resources Administration. This is a department run by the city, which provides tenant assistance programs with federal assistance from HUD. Services for eligible tenants include legal aid. The agency’s office is on the second floor of Bronx Housing Court.

HRA rental stipends: families in shelters may be eligible to participate in HRA’s Tenant-Based Rental Assistance (TBRA) Program, which will pay up to 30% of an adjusted income toward rent for an apartment that meets the program’s standards. It’s a lottery-based system, with payments made in the form of coupons.

Illegal eviction: when someone who has resided in a property for more than 30 days or has signed a lease is evicted by anyone other than a sheriff or a marshal.

Illegal lockout: when a tenant is unlawfully locked out of their apartment by their landlord, through an action such as changing the locks without a court order. 

Inspection: a visit to a property to examine violations of housing code made by a city or court employee. The visit will result in an inspection note, which is evidence of the property’s conditions. Landlords may be billed by HPD for fees related to the service.

Judgement: a decision ordered by a judge defining the outcome of a case, e.g. a tenant must pay owed rent or move out.

Laches: a defense in nonpayment cases, this is when lawyers allege that tenants are being asked to pay rent from a long time ago, which they have never been asked to before. This debt is sometimes known as “stale rent,” which is difficult for landlords to prove they are owed because of their delay in taking the case to court.

Landlord: the property’s owner.

Legal Aid: assistance provided to people who cannot afford their own legal representation. In the Bronx Housing Court, the legal aid office can only take on seven cases a day.

Legal Services NYC: a nonprofit providing free civil legal assistance to low-income state residents.

Levy: the final stage in collection proceedings, where a sheriff or marshal is collecting assets or property as repayment ordered by a judge.

Lien: the right of the landlord to keep property or possessions as a fulfillment of debt obligation.

LINC: Living in Communities was a previous rental assistance program run by the city aimed at helping families move out of shelters and into stable homes. It has now been incorporated into CITYFHEPS.

Marshal: Similar to a sheriff, a marshal is an officer whose duty is to enforce the process of the courts. Marshals are appointed by the mayor, but are not city employees.

Mold: a fungal growth that occurs in moist or damp spaces. Within housing, mold can cause health problems such as weakened immune systems and respiratory illnesses. Certain types such as Stachybotrys, or “black mold,” are notorious for the health problems they can create.

Money judgement: when the court rules the tenant owes the landlord money. This is also sometimes called a monetary judgment.

Motion: a request for a judge to issue a ruling before a case reaches trial.

Multiple dwelling registration: when a residential building contains three or more separate housing units and neither the landlord nor his or her immediate family reside in the same building, he or she must register that fact with HPD.

Non-payment case: a case brought by the landlord when the tenant has failed to pay rent. These cases can be brought to collect money owed, but can also include motions to evict tenants who are unable to pay the full amount.

Northwest Bronx Community Clergy Coalition: a grassroots organization based in Kingsbridge that partners with local, city-wide and national organizations and institutions to tackle justice-related issues linked to housing, energy and education.

Notice of eviction: a written notice delivered by a landlord or representative, notifying the tenant that they must comply with their lease or move out of the property. This is also sometimes called a marshal’s notice.

Notice of petition: a written notice of a petition delivered to a respondent, detailing when the court will hear the petition.

NYCHA: New York City Housing Authority. This is the government body that oversees providing housing for low- to mid-income residents in the five boroughs.

OCA: the Office of Court Administration, overseen by the state and used by landlords. It gained notoriety for its past practice of selling Housing Court data to tenant-screening companies, resulting in names appearing on tenant blacklists.

One-time emergency grant: also known as a ‘one-shot deal,’ this is a one-time emergency payment from HRA awarded to eligible tenants facing expenses they are unable to pay themselves at that moment, such as back paying rent arrears, utility or moving costs, etc.

Order to show cause: courts often issue an order to show cause in cases where they believe a judge will need more information on a case in order to reach a decision. It is often used as a way to argue that a judge should offer relief to one party.

Part: another term for courtroom.

Petition: Similar to a complaint filed in court, a petition is a paper filed in special proceedings and states what is sought from the court and the petition’s respondents.

Pro se: self-represented, as opposed to being represented by a lawyer in court.

Rent delinquency: when a tenant pays rent late, or fails to pay at all.

Resolution Part: before housing cases go to trial, they will first go through Resolution Part. This is where a judge will attempt to reach an agreement with the landlord and the tenant to avoid trial.

Right to Counsel: otherwise known as the Universal Access to Legal Services Law, a 2017 law that guarantees free legal aid to certain residents of the state by zip code. By 2022, all tenants should qualify.

Section 8: also known as the Housing Choice Voucher program, this is a program created in 1978 and operated by NYCHA to help low-income tenants in finding rental properties in the private property market.

SEPS: Special Exit and Prevention Supplement, another previous rental program run by the city and recently incorporated into CityFHEPS. SEPS was used to help those already in shelters, or in danger of depending on them, secure permanent housing.

Slum: housing not fit for human habitation. This often occurs across multiple buildings in one area.

Slumlord: a landlord of a slum property. Slumlords are often notorious for charging unreasonably high rents for substandard properties while not addressing repairs.

Stipulation: an agreement between tenants and landlords in court, in writing, on how a case will be resolved. Also known as “a stip.”

Subpoena: a summons ordering someone to attend court. Courts issuing subpoenas will specify any documentation or evidence that a subpoenaed party is also required to provide.

Superintendent: a live-in employee of a private landlord or of NYCHA, who is responsible for supervising the operation and maintenance of properties under the direction of the landlord or the housing agency. Also known as a “super.”

Tenant: a person renting a property from a landlord.

Testimony: a statement made under oath related to a case or claim.

Trial: the formal examination of a legal claim in court. Most housing court cases do not need to go as far as trial, as agreements are often made in the Housing Part of the court.

Posted in - Housing Court Project OfficialsComments (0)